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Archive for August, 2012

At long last I’ve made it back out to the river!  It’s been about eight weeks now since my last visit.  Today I have a double purpose…the first is to drop off one of my Styrofoam and recycled material sculptures for an annual fund-raiser that the Falls of the Ohio State Park Foundation hosts every year.  I’m glad to do this and hope my donation does well in their auction.  Despite the years I’ve been making stuff out here it still strikes me that most of my materials are literally trash.  I suppose I will never get over that. It seems to me that it takes a certain kind of person who would want to own one of these creations!  The other more fun purpose is to check out what’s different along the river and maybe make something new.  Immediately, I can see that the hot summer continues to take its toll.  At first, it was the relentless heat, but now that is coupled with a serious lack of rain.  The river is low and everything looks dry.

Over the course of this summer we have had just enough rain not to be considered a disaster area.  This is hardly a ringing endorsement and I find a small laminated notice tacked on to a bulletin board that reinforces how dry it is.  I think to myself that some of the people I’ve encountered out here over the years who do shoot off fireworks or build fire pits are not likely to read or heed this warning.  When I’m in the park, my preference is to move away from the most public areas and so with my walking stick in hand I head down the Woodland Loop Trail.  I’m still not confident enough to want to test my repaired knee too vigorously, but this trail is fairly easy.

The trail is shaded which I welcome since it’s still over 90 degrees out here.  I pass many what I would consider late summer blooming plants that have flowered earlier than usual.  I did see several stands of tall Pokeweed plants with their black berries, but even these weeds have wilted leaves.  I guess what moisture these plants could muster up went into the production of their fruit?  These berries are a favorite food of several bird species.  In the past, I have used the intensely dark purple juice from Pokeweed berries as a pigment in some drawings I have made.  This color, however, is fugitive and ultimately fades in the light.  As I walk, one distinctive sound I keep hearing is the tell-tale sound of gray squirrels gnawing on the rock-hard walnuts that are  clustered around the few walnut trees along the trail.  There’s not much meat inside one of these nuts and it seems like a lot of work for little reward.

Out on the exposed fossil beds the sun is baking, but under the shade of the trees it is still fairly green.  Since my last visit,  however, I noticed a lot of dropped tree limbs and a few whole trees that have keeled over and appear to be the result of wind damage.  I have seen a few birds including two Hairy Woodpeckers and as I walk along the trail I keep getting scolded by Carolina Wrens who resent my intrusion.  In the distance I recognize the calls from the Killdeer plovers that are looking for food along the water’s edge.  The rarest and most unusual bird, however, is  just up ahead.

I’ve only seen a couple of the more common and native Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds this year…and so I was taken aback and delighted to come across what I later identified as Isaac’s Hummingbird (Archilochus isaaci ).  To my knowledge, this is the only recorded instance of this Cuban species reaching this park.  I’m guessing that Tropical Storm Isaac (purely coincidental, but also appropriate) which is threatening the GOP conference in Tampa Bay at this moment may have blown this rarity our way?  Hummingbirds of which there are over 300 hundred recorded species have been known to wander thousands of miles away from their more familiar haunts.

I came across this hummingbird dozing on a fallen branch.  It would open its eyes every once in a while and regard me.  I kept my movements to a minimum and completely forgot about my aching knee in the process of creating a few images of it.  I was able to snap off six pictures before it took off.  As you can see, this bird (also known as the Yellow Saberbill) has a bright yellow bill it uses to extract nectar from flowers.  Its light blue body, brown wings, silver tail, and whitish-head are diagnostic of this species.  I don’t know what it is about the Falls of the Ohio, but I have seen other unique hummers out here before.  Digging through the archives…I present two of them again.

This is the ultra rare Arctic Hummingbird appearing at the Falls of the Ohio to sip nectar from the equally scarce Ice Blossoms.

I encountered this Cumberland Greencrest back in 2010 not far from the place that I saw the Isaac’s Hummingbird.  Both of these rare hummingbirds stayed in our area for a couple of days before moving on.  This is what keeps me coming out here…I just never know what I’ll find or discover! This was a short, but eventful trip and I thank you for tagging along.  Here’s another view of the river with the exposed Devonian fossil beds.

POSTSCRIPT:  The inspiration for this particular post comes from another WordPress blog I enjoy entitled “Ekostories”.  Isaac Yuen is its creator and he’s an aspiring environmental writer.  Issac has a talent for weaving stories and making connections about responsible stewardship of our planet.  At the time of this writing, Isaac has a wonderful post about a book entitled the “Flight of the Hummingbird” that I think you may enjoy…so please check it out.  Here is his link:  http://ekostories.com/ Finally, one last peek at this elusive hummingbird checking out a flower blossom.

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One last driftwood post before hopefully moving on to the current conditions at the Falls of the Ohio.  As my knee heals, I have been sifting through my own digital photographs.  Sitting at home, I have been spared the relentless heat that has defined our summer.  Artist at Exit 0, however, does miss bearing witness to life along the river and can’t wait to get back!  I thought I would end this driftwood series by looking at wood that is more organically expressive.  As mentioned in a previous post, the river processes a tree by removing its branches into increasingly smaller segments.  With all the broken down wood present at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, it can be a challenge to find a piece that implies movement.  Here are a few larger examples that I find to be especially sculptural.

I come across many unique pieces of wood in the park that feel as satisfying to me as many abstract sculptures made by man.  Walking around a  particularly nice piece of driftwood, I am rewarded with different viewpoints that remind me that the object I am regarding share a common space.  Here’s a different image of the same dramatic driftwood log and the experience in perception changes as you move around the wood.  I notice not only the arc of branches and roots, but the spaces between forms as well.

Here’s another nice piece that I came across this year and it also has many nice sculptural qualities.  I love the “S” curve snake-like motion implied in this driftwood.

When I see a piece of wood this twisted and convoluted I’m reminded that nature is the true sculptor here.  Doing the shaping are water, wind, and the life force of the tree itself whose innate “intention” is to live.

It’s hard for me to imagine that works of art were considered ” superior” to the “corruptness” of nature.  Fortunately, the philosophy of aesthetics is ever-changing, but still could use additional tweaking from what strictly enhances the experiences of our lives to embracing a better appreciation of life in all its forms.  Even when we use ourselves as the egotistical measure of all things we should be starting to understand by now that the quality of our very lives and that of our descendants depends upon the overall quality of the natural environment.

When I’m at the river I try to be as present in the moment as much as I can, however, my mind does day-dream a lot about the relationships between art, man, and nature.  I believe as my friend Ellen Dissanayake has eloquently expressed through her well-researched books that art has survival value otherwise our species would not have spent thousands of years involved in this activity.  My reaction is to try to use my creativity in this special place using the materials I find on hand to try to further this conversation along.  The sculptures I make to tell my little stories are combinations of natural and artificial materials.  The river-eroded Styrofoam I use for my figurative work is usually so static in form that to enliven it requires finding rootlets and branches that the river hasn’t fully removed all sense of gesture and movement.  These pieces become the arms and legs of my characters that help imply animation.  The picture above shows roots I collected while walking over the driftwood that the river did not completely break apart.

It’s interesting how often trees enter the picture.  One nice touch in the opening ceremony of the recently completed London Olympics was the large tree image that brought nature into the festivities.  Key to the life of a tree are the roots that help bring water and nutrients to its tissues.  By growing and burrowing through the soil the root system helps buttress the tree and holds the soil together.  This is especially important on a riverbank.  Since driftwood is essentially deadwood…I didn’t want to wrap up this post on such a dismal note.  At the Falls of the Ohio live many tenacious trees and here are images of a few of them that have weathered many a storm, flood, and the activities of man.

Before the idea of climate change and global warming there was already enough change occurring through the busyness of our species.  I remember looking at satellite imagery of the Amazon region a few years a go and being able to see the tell-tale grid system of logging roads and farms supplanting the jungle.  Deforestation is continuing at an even greater rate now.  Our trees need our love and we need the free services they provide.  Now for one last look at another resilient tree at the Falls of the Ohio.

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Welcome to my second look at wood as expressed at the Falls of the Ohio.  The first post concentrated more on the river and water as an agent of change moving material through the landscape.  This post looks more closely at the driftwood that gets stranded in this southern Indiana park.  I once curated an exhibition at the Louisville Visual Art Association entitled “River Sticks” where all the artworks were made from locally procured driftwood.  The majority of these works of art utilized raw, natural sources, but there is also wood in the mix of a slightly different character.

There is a wooden staircase placed here by the Department of Natural Resources (which maintains this state park) that is a popular access way onto the riverbank and fossil rocks.  It is not unusual during bouts of flooding to see part of this staircase submerged by the Ohio River.  During those moments, all you can do is look from a distance or visit the Interpretive Center.

Over time this staircase has needed frequent repairs as it gets battered by floating logs and tree trunks.  Only after the water has drained away can you walk among the driftwood and see what else made from wood has been left high and dry.

Here’s a dramatic shot of a different staircase that has floated down the river and has been snagged by a willow tree.  Objects stranded in trees bear witness to how high the river rose.

I frequently find wooden pallets and they get snagged in the trees too.  This one is a little different in that it appears the tree is growing through and around this artificial form. Over time, the pallet will fall apart. Perhaps wood is wood, but one can’t help noticing how much milled and processed wood is a part of the mix.  Here are a few other images showing this contrast between natural and man-shaped wood.

Sometimes it seems like there are enough planed boards at the Falls to build a small house. Fishermen and visitors use these planks to span muddy areas and puddles to keep their shoes clean and dry.  All this wood is a disposable resource?  I’ve seen visitors taking lumber out and I’ve done the same.  I like using river-worn cut boards as bases for the Styrofoam sculptures I choose to keep.  To me, even the smallest board tells a story of our relationship to trees and nature.  I tell myself that someday I’ll make some rustic piece of furniture from this wood.  The same processes that break a tree down in the river…do a similar “service” to disposed of wooden furniture.

Here’s a piece of a child’s crib or bed that I found at the river’s edge.

This is one of many table legs and turned pieces I’ve come across.  Sometimes I pick them up and take them home.  I’ve used them on rare occasions in my art, but I have also given many pieces to artist friends to see what they could make of them.  I suppose I could make an homage to  Louise Nevelson’s sculptures, but would prefer to create something more personal.  Nevertheless, I have picked up a few wooden artifacts from the river and here’s how they look collectively.

I left the toes of my shoes sneaking a peak for scale!  Here’s some of the hand-turned and machine-made table legs, chair staves, and spindles I’ve saved.  These artifacts do break down over time and eventually revert back to nature.  Now for a detail.

Here’s a slightly different collection of wooden artifacts I’ve saved over the years.  Some things I recognize and others require pondering to figure them out.

The objects on the right are mostly finials from fence posts.  The circular objects with the holes in them…I’m not sure how those were originally used?  Could they be part of a float system for barge ropes or are they wooden wheels for toys…could they be lids for some kinds of containers?  In this grouping I have also included a small rustic picture frame I found as well as a whittled stick I could tell someone cut and scored and is perhaps the most minimal artifact in my altered wood collection.  I find many board fragments, but I kept one small piece because someone named “Bill” tried routing his name in the wood and drilled a few holes that became bigger as the wood softened and aged from exposure to water.  This piece of wood exhibits several ways we leave our mark on nature.

I also have a sign collection that can be seen in my Pages section.  Most all of them are also made from wood and were once part of this unusual driftwood mix that came from the Ohio River.  I’m thinking of putting my found “Bill” board in that collection because it too is a sign of the times as we lose our ability and desire to write in cursive.  Very few schools in my area even bother to teach this skill anymore.

Not all the driftwood in the river consists of logs, branches, and roots.  Much of my riverblog bears witness to the extent our handiwork pervades the larger environment.  What I see happening in my part of the world I assume is transitioning  simultaneously across the surface of the planet.  We have added our own distinctiveness to the overall material aggregate which challenges our now quaint notions of what is “purely natural”.  I was right when I mentioned in an earlier post that the month of July would find a way to be memorable.  It’s official now, July was our hottest month ever in what is shaping up to be our hottest year ever.  Much of our country is experiencing an intense drought and so I end with a picture of what it looks like when there is too much water.

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I have been doing some armchair beach combing while my knee recovers and I have selected images to help tell the story of wood at the Falls of the Ohio.  Since this wood was also once alive, it is also the story of trees along the Ohio Valley. When I went through my last three year’s worth of images…I found enough material for a few “wooden posts”.  Hence, this is Part I of what may prove to be a couple of stories.  The Falls of the Ohio is well-known for its driftwood deposits and many people (and some animals when I come to think about it) like to take advantage of this resource.  I have met many a person in pursuit of a select piece of wood.  What folks do with this wood is as variable as the person.  Some people like to use driftwood to enhance garden displays, some are inspired to make art from the found wood, and others may choose to burn this wood during cold winter nights.  I’ve seen Pileated Woodpeckers make short work of decayed tree trunks in their pursuit of carpenter ants and beetle larvae.   And once I found a Mallard duck’s nest inside a hollow log.  I’ve seen many beautiful fungi helping to convert this wood to humus. Driftwood is plentiful in the park and what usually happens is the Ohio River during its high water moods moves the old wood out and lays down a fresh layer that originates up-stream from us.  Sometimes I wonder if the wood I’m seeing is also part of the riverbank eroding in the northeast? These days, riverine ecosystems are under so many pressures. Since the Falls environment is continually being rearranged by nature, no two years are exactly the same and the riverbank is ever-changing.  It is interesting to me to think about these very images as digital driftwood that flows from the rivulet of data coming from my computer and tumbled into the ocean of info that is the internet.

A prolonged rainy system upriver from us or a sudden flash flood caused by short, but intense rain storms causes the Ohio River to rise quickly.  “New” wood flows over the top of the dam and soon mixes with wood already in the park.

Prevailing winds and river currents push the driftwood which can form large rafts and mats against the Indiana side of the Ohio River.  If you notice, there aren’t many trees here with intact branches.  The river breaks each tree down and keeps subdividing it into ever smaller and straighter pieces.  The wood chips in the water are the remains of tree bark that have been ground off by continually rolling against the other tree trunks in the waves.  Of course, there is other detritus much of it man-made also in the water. Eventually the water recedes and strands the wood in interesting formations that are a part of a new and rearranged environment.  Here are a few images made while the river retreats.

Not all the driftwood gets corralled by long logs that organize the smaller ones into neat parallel rows that fill in beach space like pieces to a puzzle.  It’s fascinating to get a sense of the water by how the wood was laid down.  Sometimes there is just so much material that immense mounds are formed by the interlocking wood.  Exploring these mounds can be tricky because the wood is still settling and caution is recommended.  At the moment, there is a sizable amount of driftwood under the railroad bridge which is also closest to the dam.  Here are a few images of all these logs after the water has drained away.

The small creek that flows into the Ohio River gets backed up with logs during high water.  When the water recedes and deposits the wood, it covers the contours of the creek’s banks.  Here are a few more recent images.

In the above image you can see how the trees that line this bank are beginning to be exposed by the river.  I believe there is just so much additional water and energy in play now because of climate change that the days of gentle rains will be fewer and farther between one another.  In our area, many residents have noticed that our storms seem to be fiercer and becoming more event worthy.  The main beneficiary of this are the television weather forecasters who love to hype the weather anyway.  I believe I will end here for now, but will continue later because there is more to say about this driftwood.  To close, I will end with another large and sculptural mound of driftwood.  Have a great week and month everybody!!

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